Rob Pollard v Woods: "We make money on the road and that’s just the way it is now"

A man, a band, a record label. Rob Pollard talks to Woods' Jeremy Earl.

Woods, Brooklyn’s finest lo-fi folk-rock act, are one of the busiest and hardworking bands around. Jeremy Earl, the singer and guitarist, not only writes and records Woods records, but also runs the Woodsist label, releasing work from a disparate set of artists, and curates an annual Californian music festival. Rather than relying on an increasingly out-dated and unfair music industry, Woods have taken care of themselves, carving out a career and back-catalogue to be admired.

Since their formation in 2005, Woods have released seven studio albums, with their last one, Bend Beyond, catapulting them to new heights. Earl’s vocal is distinctive, setting Woods apart from their contemporaries. 

They recently played Primavera Sound, a festival in Barcelona that carefully puts together a stella line-up refusing to cater for the masses, instead focussing on a particular niche. The New Statesman spoke to Earl, the catalyst behind all things Woods, about the direction of the music industry and the future for his band. 

I saw your performance recently at Primavera and it was wonderful - the weather was beautiful and there was a brilliant atmosphere. How did you find it? 

Primavera was great; it was a really good experience. It’s just a beautiful place to play and Spain in general is a wonderful country to go to, and they treat the artists really well there. The crowd are really welcoming and excited about what you’re doing, so it’s fun. 

I think Primavera is a really important music festival. The line up caters for a particular kind of listener that can often be ignored.

To me, it’s really refreshing. I think it’s very varied - there’s all sorts of stuff, so I think we fit in that way, adding to the eclectic feel of the fest. 

Who else did you see whilst you were there?

We saw a couple of the other acts. We saw Kurt Vile, who’s a friend of ours. It’s always good to see a friend play in front of thousands of people.

He was fantastic, wasn’t he?

Yeah, he was really good! We also saw a bit of Animal Collective.

It’s interesting that you run your own record label which is where all Woods’ material is released from, as well as many other acts. What benefits does having your own label bring?

It definitely gives you more creative control. You just completely skip that label step because you are the label, so there’s really no answering to anybody, you can basically do whatever you want. You can take as much time, or as little time. It’s been our way for a while and it’s worked out. The band and the label have grown together, and we’re still able to do it, so it’s going okay for now. 

Do you have to be really business-minded to run your own label, or was it something you just fell into?

Just completely fell into it, and then over the years just picked up on different things of the business aspect of it. There’s still a lot I’m sure I’m doing wrong, but it seems to work for us right now. But, no, I don’t come from a business background or anything, I come from an art background, I’m just an artist and that’s what I do, so I’m kinda just winging it, and it’s working. 

You’ve released material from some great artists, like Kurt Vile, Real Estate and Crystal Stilts. Are those all acts that you rate particularly highly?

Yeah, it was a great experience to work with those guys early on, and it’s great to see bands move on to bigger things, and none of us knew where those three bands would be. Like, Real Estate are way beyond the capacity of what my label could actually do for them because it’s just me sitting in my house. But now they have a team and it’s working really well for them. 

Is there any new Woods material in the pipeline?

We’re in the studio right now, actually. We’ve been recording and we’re going back in next week, and then we’re doing some more touring. We’ll be back over in the UK in August and then we’re planning to record more after that trip, so right now I’d say we’re a little more than halfway done recording the record. We’re thinking we’ll have something new out in early spring. 

What’s your favourite Woods record so far?

So far, I’d say the newest one, Bend Beyond, but the experience of recording this past week has gotten me super excited, so I can definitely say this new record is gonna be by far our best and my favourite. 

What about your influences then. Who’s your all-time favourite artist?

That’s a hard one. I love The Rolling Stones, and George Harrison. Neil Young, of course, and The Grateful Dead. They’re all bands I will never get sick of and could listen to every single day. 

You can hear Neil Young’s influence in your work. He played a few UK dates recently, including a big night at the O2 Arena. How do you feel about him still touring because some people feel these things are often better left alone rather than stretching them out into the later years of life?

I’m all for it, why not. I hope that when I’m older I can be doing it, it sounds wonderful! I saw Neil on his last tour in the States when they came to New York and it was great - it sounded amazing. I guess on the other side of the spectrum you have The Rolling Stones. I haven’t seen them, but maybe their bodies aren’t quite able to do it anymore but they still seem to do it. 

I’m all for it as long as you can do it physically. Neil’s playing is still amazing, and his voice sounds perfect, so once things like the voice go, and you can’t get the right notes, then I would say maybe think about giving it a rest.

How difficult is it for musicians outside the mainstream to make money from music these days? I often ask bands about Spotify, in particular, because it seems these newer platforms aren’t very fair to artists, with a lot of the money now pushed away from the bands.

Yeah, for something like Spotify it’s basically non-existent for us - it’s a fraction of a cent. For the number of plays we’re actually getting, I don’t think it amounts to anything, really, but we’ll make more money on the road and that’s just the way it is now. The records sell well - no complaints there - but the real way we make any kind of money is whenever we go on any kind of extended tour. 

How do you think artists can wrestle back some of the power?

A lot of people just starting to do everything themselves: being the record label, recording your own records - these things eliminate a step and save money. If you can’t do it just as well then don’t compromise, but if you can do it as well a big record label or fancy recording studio you might as well do it. 

So taking control of your own destiny?

Absolutely, and I feel a lot of bands are starting to do that. They’re getting out of their record contracts and saying ‘we’re gonna release this record on our own’, and then they strike up some kind of distribution deal with someone, and then that’s it. It depends on the band but it makes sense. 

There was a lot of energy and excitement during your Primavera set and it looked like the band were really enjoying themselves. Is touring the best part of being in Woods?

I kinda like recording, especially this next record because it’s a different style for us, in a proper studio. It’s been a really enlightening experience, and great just to try something new. I’ll always love playing live but there’s something about the studio that’s really exciting. 

Do you notice a difference between the audience at your US gigs to those here in the UK?

I think there is a difference. I feel like in the UK and Europe - I don’t know if it’s because we don’t come over as much - there’s always more excitement and energy. It’s different than in the US. We don’t play a ton in the US but we play enough where we’re hitting cities maybe a couple of times a year, and it’s always good but there is a general excitement that feels good for us in the UK. 

I remember seeing Woods at the Deaf Institute in Manchester and everyone really enjoyed that night.

Yeah, I remember, I love that place. That was our more stripped down, acoustic tour, whereas now it’s more of a full rock band, so it’s a much different sound now. 

As well as your label, you also organise your own festival, don’t you?

Yeah, usually once a year in California. I love it. I get it a lot of help from this guy at folkYEAH, a California show promoter, and he takes care of that end of stuff. I curate and deal with the artists. It’s great, and Big Sur is the place where everything comes together and it’s always a magical couple of days. It’s such a beautiful environment, and we look forward to doing it every year. 

There's more about Woods on their site and on Twitter.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad